Rishi Sunak insisted he was acting to avoid a public “backlash” by watering down efforts to tackle the climate crisis as he faced fierce criticism from green-minded Tories, environmentalists and industry figures.
In a speech from Downing Street on Wednesday, the Prime Minister announced a major U-turn by putting back a ban on new fossil fuel cars by five years as he claimed his raft of changes was “not about the politics”.
He weakened plans to strip out polluting gas and oil boilers and scrapped policies forcing landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of homes.
Mr Sunak insisted the UK was already ahead of allies in reducing emissions and could not impose “unacceptable costs” on British families.
“The risk here to those of us who care about reaching net zero, as I do, is simple: if we continue down this path we risk losing the consent of the British people,” he said.
“And the resulting backlash would not just be against specific policies but against the wider mission itself, meaning we might never achieve our goal.”
Mr Sunak insisted he was standing by the legally binding goal of hitting net zero by 2050 despite making changes including:
– Delaying the ban on new cars and vans running solely on petrol and diesel from 2030 to 2035
– Weakening the plan to phase out gas boilers from 2035 so households that will struggle the most to switch to heat pumps will not have to make the switch
– Putting back the ban on boilers relying on heating oil in off-grid homes from 2026 to 2035
– Scrapping the requirement of energy efficiency upgrades to homes, which a landlords’ organisation welcomed as meaning they will no longer need to spend “substantial sums of money”.
Labour pledged to retain the 2030 target for electric cars if it wins the next election.
Polling has suggested Britons support measures to tackle climate change – but the balance shifts when asked their opinion if such actions dealt a blow to their personal finances.
Mr Sunak’s cancelling of requirements to upgrade tenants’ homes alone could however cost British households nearly £8 billion in higher bills over the next decade, according to researchers at the non-profit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
He detailed the plans to the public after putting them to Cabinet ministers in a hastily arranged call in response to a leak of his net-zero plans to the BBC.
Speaking from his press briefing room in front of a podium brandishing the Tory conference slogan of “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, he claimed previous governments – both Tory and Labour – had sought to get to net zero “simply by wishing it”.
Mr Sunak insisted he was taking a “more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach that eases the burdens on families” and said he believes the move will command “broad support” in time.
He forged ahead with weakening the approach despite staunch criticism from climate campaigners, the car industry and former prime minister Boris Johnson.
The plans were welcomed by other Conservatives who, believing it may be popular with voters, have been calling for green policies to be delayed to avoid exacerbating the cost of living.
Mr Johnson, who introduced green policies including the car ban while in office, warned that “business must have certainty about our net zero commitments”.
He urged Mr Sunak that “we cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country”.
The policy change also alarmed the car industry, which has invested on the basis of a 2030 shift away from petrol and diesel.
Ford UK chairwoman Lisa Brankin said: “Our business needs three things from the UK Government: ambition, commitment and consistency.
“A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
Chris Norbury, the chief executive of the E.ON energy firm, said the move would be a “misstep on many levels” as he hit out at the “false argument” that green policies can only come at a cost, arguing they deliver affordable energy while boosting jobs.
He said companies wanting to invest in the UK need “long-term certainty” while communities now risk being condemned to “many more years of living in cold and draughty homes that are expensive to heat”.
Sir Alok Sharma, who was the president of the Cop26 climate summit, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’d be incredibly damaging for business confidence, for inward investment, if the political consensus that we have forged in our country on the environment and climate action is fractured.
“And, frankly, I really do not believe that it’s going to help any political party electorally which chooses to go down this path.”
Prominent Tory environmentalist Lord Zac Goldsmith went as far as to demand a general election over the “economically and ecologically illiterate decision”.
But Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, who served in Mr Johnson’s cabinet, called the former prime minister a “net zero zealot” and backed Mr Sunak.
The Conservatives’ narrow success in the summer’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, won largely through a campaign against the expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) in London, bolstered Tory calls to shun unpopular green policies.
Craig Mackinlay, leader of the Tory Net Zero Scrutiny Group which has been sceptical of the Government’s policies, said the expected announcements by Mr Sunak are “sensible and pragmatic”.
Labour’s shadow net zero secretary Ed Miliband said: “Today is an act of weakness from a desperate, directionless Prime Minister, dancing to the tune of a small minority of his party.”
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle reacted furiously to the announcement not being made to MPs, expressing his views “in the strongest terms” in a letter to Mr Sunak.
He hit out at the “major policy shift” being made a day after the Commons closed for the conference recess.
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